You are on page 1of 16

[Note to readers: this is chapter 6 from the book Representations of Pain in Art and Visual Culture, co-edited with

Maria Pia Di Bella, in the series Routledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies (New York: Routledge, 2012). The larger context of studies of the death of a thousand cuts appears in other places: see the related material in The Very Theory of Transgression: Bataille, lingchi, and Surrealism, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5 no. 2 (2004): 519; The Most Intolerable Photographs Ever Taken, in The Ethics and Aesthetics of Torture: Its Comparative History in China, Islam, and Europe, edited by Timothy Brook and Jrme Bourgon (London: Rowman and Littlefield, c. 2012); and in Portuguese as As fotografias mais intolerveis j tiradas, in Leituras do Corpo, edited by Christine Greiner and Claudia Amorim (So Paulo: Annablume, 2003), 2763. ISBN 85-7419-358-5. This essay was originally posted on academia.edu, and on the authors website, www.jameselkins.com. Please send all comments, criticism, etc., to jelkins@saic.edu. The text was written c. 2005, revised 2010-12, and uploaded July 14, 2013.]

On The Complicity Between Visual Analysis and Torture: A Cut-by-Cut Account of Lingchi Photographs James Elkins

What follows is not an ordinary analysis of a visual material, but an analysis that means to say something about analysis itself. It is also a contribution to the study of the images known as lingchi, called in English the death of a thousand cuts. But even there, I am only offering a very partial and narrow kind of contribution. Others have written about the social and political contexts of the lingchi images, and I have written about the strange influence have had on the understanding of surrealism.1 I think those kinds of investigation are important for the historical understanding of the lingchi, and the more recent question of what counted as transgressive to certain viewers in the early twentieth century. The lingchi images are complex, and involve a diverse cast of characters from the original executioners to the French photographers, surrealists, psychologists, and, more recently, critics of various sorts from Giorgio Agamben to Georges Didi-Huberman.2 My contribution to the historical study of the lingchi images is strictly empirical: I aim to say, as succinctly as possible, what actually happened in the course of a lingchi execution, from 1

moment to moment, until the final dismemberment. That has not been done before, and I have marked a few places in my analysis that are speculative. The analysis is also limited to the three sequences that are known in sufficient detail, which means the analysis only applies to just a few of the very last lingchi that were done in Shanghai in 1905.3 In addition, I have abridged my analysis here to keep with this books limitations on the number of reproductions per chapter. A full analysis of the exact method of the lingchi requires about forty images, more than can be accommodated in this book. What I am contributing is therefore only a sample of a full discussion.4 I am also interested in saying something about analysis itself. I would like to study the effect of looking at painful images such as the lingchi so slowly and carefully that it is possible to reconstruct every last cut in the procedure. I noticed in the conference that preceded this book that most of my fellow presenters looked only very briefly at their images, and several took them off the screen when they wanted to speak at length, in order to relieve us of the necessity of seeing them too long. The same can be said of the well-known writers and artists who first disseminated these images, in particular Georges Bataille. The images have traditionally been seen in glimpses. You look, you flinch, you look away. I wanted to see what would happen if I looked with the steady attention of a doctor or an executioner. Why do that? When the images are seen with a steady gaze, they lose something of their original power, and they gain in other ways. Bataille needed the images he owned to be transgressive, and (as I have argued in the other essay) transgression has become a central term in post-surrealist art. It infuses some of the essays in this book. What happens, then, when these images cease to be transgressive, or become transgressive in an unexpected sense? Ultimately, this is a question I put to myself and to everyone who studies representations of pain. Why do we look at these images? What effects do they have on us, and on others? At the end of the conference, in the roundtable conversation that is reprinted in this book, I raised the question of self-reflexivity. Why, I wanted to know, does the Turandot Group study these images? What does it mean to study such images now, at the beginning of the new century? Most of us in the conference were familiar with the history of these imagesmade in China a little over 100 years ago; collected and disseminated in prewar France. Some members of the Group said they study the images in order to deconstruct them, to see what they meant to viewers in France and in China. Others, such as Jrme Bourgon, who has published more on these images than anyone else, said they were interested in the images as evidence of the end of a long tradition of Chinese legal scholarship. We, in the Group, had various motives. There was, I thought, a general lack of reflection about our own roles: the reasons why we, individually and as 2

a group, were interested in precisely those images, at precisely that historical moment. As you will see in the Roundtable that concludes this book, there wasnt much reflection on that issue, and I thought that our fixed relation to these images might be jarred by looking at them differently in this case, more systematically and slowly. There is also a third purpose to this essay, and it is one I did not expect, and did not develop, until I had written out the first draft. I think that the slow, sometimes excruciating process of looking at the lingchi step by step has parallels with ordinary visual analysis as it is practiced on any image, in art history classrooms around the world. In the close reading of an image, whether it is a formal analysis, a compositional analysis, an iconographic inventory, or some unnamed kind of careful looking, the students or scholars eye is meant to travel slowly and systematically over the image, overlooking nothing, noting everything, classifying and systematizing the images root meanings. Only then, so it is said in the pedagogy of images, is it possible to go on and build serious interpretations. What I noticed in performing the close reading of lingchi images is that the dissection of the bodies in the photographs is structurally similar to the dissection of any image by any eye that aims at being systematic, rational, and thorough. The conclusion I draw is that visual analysis is not a neutral, heuristic, preparatory step in the understanding of images. It can be a cold, and cold-blooded, dissection of the image: a powerful, invasive and destructive operation that severs the image from itself, cuts it into pieces, and leaves it dismembered, helpless, and ready for interpretation. I have only a little to say about that here, because of this books limited space. I expand on the analysis in a book called What Photography Is in relation to the specific medium of photography.5 (It was another motif of the conference that we spent relatively little time pondering the media we were studying, as if the message superseded its material expression.) Analysis of the lingchi procedure The procedure starts with the removal of the victims left breast (Fig. 6. 1). This particular event was documented with large-format stereo slides. The larger image is one of the stereo pairs.

Fig. 6.1 Execution of an unknown prisoner by lingchi. Date unknown, c. 1905. Caishikou execution field, Beijing. Top: stereo pair. Bottom: detail. Photos courtesy of Muse Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.

The cut is very clean, removing the skin, the superficial fat, and the chest muscle, in an eggshaped area. The procedure here would be very similar to skinning an animal, and it is reasonable to assume that the executioners expertise came from butchery. The shiny fascia covering the ribs and intercostal muscles are still intact, also typical in flaying an animal. There is only one thin rivulet of blood. If flaying is done well, there is very little blood loss. 2. In the next stereo pair, additional dissection has been done (Fig. 6. 2, top). The fascia have been cut away, revealing the ribs, and the arm has been opened above the elbow joint.

Fig. 6.2 Execution of an unknown prisoner by lingchi. Date unknown, c.1905. Caishikou execution field, Beijing. Details. Photos courtesy of Muse Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.

A lens-shaped aperture has been cleared away, indicated by the arrow. This same shape appears in photographs of other lingchi. The fifth and sixth ribs curve upward at this point, and the apex of the heart would be just beneath them, covered only in a thin layer of fascia. It is possible that the purpose of this cut was to reveal the beating of the mans heart. The apex of the heart could be the form indicated by the arrow. In this same photograph (Fig. 6. 2, top), the front of the mans arm has been sliced off. Photographs of other executions show how this was done: the executioner pinches the biceps to raise it up, and then slices underneath it. In this case the mans arm was tied so close to his body that the executioner cut his side in two places (note the two small cuts on his side next to the cut in the arm). The humerus (upper arm bone) may have been cut midway along its length, and ripped out. Below, the round condyles of the radius (one of the lower arm bones) are visible, indicated by the arrow. This kind of cut would be easy to do with a large cleaver. Chinese cookbooks routinely call for the breaking of even large bones with cleavers, and once the humerus was broken it would not be difficult to pull the lower portion forward and snap the cartilages at the elbow joint. In other lingchi photographs, it is evident that this was done to both arms and legs. The victim would then be disabled without amputation. The purpose of both the excision of the lower humerus and femur, and also the prosection (demonstrative dissection) of the apex of the heart, might have been to enable the victim to see his own body in the process of being dismantled.6 The same could be said of other sequences in which the humerus and femur were apparently not excised. (See Fig. 6. 4.) 3. With the intercostal spaces scraped clean, the victim could have seen the beating of his heart, and also the motions of his lungs. In other sequences of lingchi, there is also lower cut on his right side (our left side) may have been designed to reveal the liver. One is visible in Fig. 6: 2, bottom. This cut goes below the ribs, and like the other cuts it seems to outline a particular area. By this time the victim will have bled more, but still much less than would cause a loss of consciousness. One of the purposes of the very sharp knives and clean cuts may have been to prolong the victims consciousness. (I am not claiming that the purpose of these actions is to prolong the suffering of the victim. It was widely assumed by Westerners that the lingchi was an operation intended to produce pain. There is no evidence for that in the Chinese texts. Rather it appears that the purpose was to ensure that the man could not take his place with the ancestors because he would be given an improper burial. In that context, it is possible that the longer the man was conscious, 7

the more he would realize his eternal fate. The difference between Western perceptions and nonWestern intentions is one of the themes of this book, and we also discuss it in the roundtable printed at the end of the book. I mention it here, even though it is not part of the analysis I am undertaking at the moment, because when I have presented this material to members of the Turandot Group that is researching these images, it was said that I was playing into Western expectations, and reviving pernicious misunderstandings. All I am doing is reporting on what the photographs may show.) 4. The executioner amputated the victims legs by first cutting through the fleshy part of the upper leg above the knee (Fig. 6. 3, top).

Fig. 6.3 Top: Execution of an unknown prisoner by lingchi, detail. Date unknown, c. 1905. Bottom: Execution of Fu Zhuli, April 10, 1905, detail. Caishikou execution field, Beijing. Photos courtesy of Muse Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.

Here he is posing for the camera, holding his cleaver still. (That happens in a number of other photographs. The poses seem to be held for especially important moments in the sequence.) Above the cleaver the femur, the muscles above it, and the skin and fat can be seen in three distinct layers. One effect of cutting muscles and other tissues is that the cut releases tension, and the muscles spring back. It appears the sequence for the amputation of the legs was the same as for the arms. Next, the executioner would open the leg down to the knee joint, clean the muscles and fascia, hack through the femur, and pull it out at the knee joint. This is shown in Fig. 6. 3, bottom. Below the initial clean cut is a second, more ragged, cut through the thick quadriceps muscles. The ragged cut indicates several attempts. The right-hand side of the wound is especially ragged and torn-looking, indicating at least eight separate cuts. The top arrow shows the layers of skin, fat, and muscle from the first cut; the middle arrow indicates the mass of the muscle group called the quadriceps femoris; and the lower arrow shows the cut end of the femur. (Another photograph from this same execution shows the end of the femur on the mans left leg protruding from the severed muscles in the wound.) As with the arms, the executioner avoided the large femoral artery and saphenous vein, which could have caused massive blood loss. 5. At this point, the mans arms and legs would be amputated, which would be easily done but would cause significant blood loss, leading to loss of consciousness (Fig. 6. 4). In this case the mans humerus bones were not cut, as shown here, where the two rounded condyles of the bone are visible at the end of the stump of his left arm. The joint of his right arm has been prepared for amputation by a V-shaped cut.

10

Fig. 6.4 Execution of Fu Zhuli by lingchi. April 10, 1905. Caishikou execution field, Beijing. Top: whole. Bottom: detail. Photos courtesy of Muse Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.

11

At that point the mans head would be bent forward and cut off by hacking between the cervical vertebrae in back. The dismembered body would be thrown on the ground or the parts collected in baskets. It would be possible to go on in detail on each of these steps, including the initial binding of the victim, which was itself a complex procedure. But this is enough to reveal the sequence of events. With this information, it becomes possible to look carefully at any photograph of lingchi, and say approximately what stage in the execution it represents. Three conclusions That is a brief and incomplete summary of the facts of the lingchi procedure as it is recorded in several series of photographs made in Shanghai. From this I will draw three conclusions, equally briefly. 1. Of the three purposes of this essay, the contribution to the study of the lingchi itself is the easiest to assess. Even within the restricted corpus of existing photographs, all taken in the last years before the practice was discontinued, there is variety in the sequence, and over the preceding centuries there would naturally be much greater variation. And yet, in regard to the photographs, there is also surprising consistency. I propose that the sequence I have set out here, in abbreviated form, accounts for virtually all the surviving photographs. This implies the existence of a known or expected procedure, and suggests that just a small group of executioners were responsible for lingchi in the last years in which it was practiced. The most speculative element of my analysis is the supposition that the humerus and femur were cut and their ends pulled out. In some photographs that seems very plausible, but in others it is less clear.7 I think that a definite answer has to wait for new photographic material orsomething that is never out of the range of possibility in historical researchtexts. 2. However, I am less interested in the empirical sequence itself than in two consequences that can be drawn from it. The acts of looking that produced the conclusions I have sketched here took several days. My idea, at first, was to look in a different way than people have looked at these images in the past, and in a different way than the conference participants looked when they showed the images onscreen. My hope was that by instituting a different kind of looking, wethose of us who study these images, and you, as a reader of this bookmight unsettle our habitual relation to the material, and find ways to question our engagement. It has been over ten years since the first conference I attended on this subject, in Toronto (this is mentioned in the Preface), and almost seven since the conference that sparked this book. 12

In that interval several major publications have appeared that would seem to adequately summarize what is known about the lingchi. But I am not sure the scholars involved in this materialand by extension, with other archives of material such as the ones described elsewhere in this bookhave always thought about the sources of their own attraction. In the conferences I participated in, some scholars said that their interest in the images came from their desire to understand the historical context of Shanghai at the opening of the twentieth century; others said they had an interest in understanding the history of Chinese punitive practices, or the history of French colonial attitudes at fin-de-sicle. I do not doubt those motives: it seems reasonable to say that whenever an historian focuses on a single subject, her primary interest is in finding out what happened then, and why. The historical material is normally fascinating of its own accord: it apparently provides the motive and source of interest. And yet I say apparently because there is always more involved. Historical writing, as its theorists from Nietzsche and Wilhelm Dilthey to Hayden White have said, is a reciprocal enterprise: the historian is drawn to the material because of something in her own life. Historical writing and research is necessarily a dialogue between the historians experience and the events she is seeking to understand, and understanding itself is always mutual: writing history can be a way of understanding oneself. These are platitudes of reflective historical theory, presupposed in some of the best accounts, such as Walter Benjamins. In the day-to-day course of historical research, the reciprocal illumination of the historians life by the historical material is not always articulated or even noticed. It becomes an insistent problem, I think, when scholars decide to study extremely unpleasant or painful material. In those cases, the conventional reasons that might be given for studying the material may not be persuasive. If Stephen Eisenman says he is studying Abu Ghraib photographs in order to better understand the current political moment,8 or Valentin Groebner says he is interested in photojournalism to shed light on compassion and identification,9 then those explanations are certainly true. But they can only be part of the story. I hoped that by looking slowly and deliberately at these images, I could bring out how strange it is to spend time studying such a subject: and by strange I mean, potentially, a whole string of concepts that would have to be teased out by each individual historianperverse, masochistic, sadistic, sociopathic, racist. When images are as historically and emotionally charged as these, then the motivations that might have been the private concern of the historian gain a public dimension. I hoped that by dilating the time spent on the images, it might become more difficult for scholars to say they are just studying Chinese legal practice, or the history of colonialism, or the history of Orientalism. By slowing down seeing I hoped to make it possible for anyone who finds herself drawn, even 13

temporarily, to these images, to ask why they are so drawn. In particular, in relation to surrealism, I doubt Bataille could have sustained his interest in the images or taken them as exemplary moments of transgression, if he had looked at them more slowly and carefully. They would have become something else. In this context I can only gesture in the direction of this claim, but the subject applies generally to images that are painful to encounter: if you find yourself drawn to some of the images in this book, or the issues they raise, then you might consider a radically altered way of encountering the imagesa very slow encounter, for example as a way to unsettle your relation to the images, and facilitate a reflective encounter with your own motivations and sources of interest. 3. My third purpose is to suggest that the ordinary kinds of analysis that beginning students in the arts are taught are not the neutral vehicles of understanding that they seem to be. Formal analysis, compositional analysis, iconographic inventory, narrative reconstructionall the supposedly preparatory, elementary, rudimentary ways of lookingare far from neutral encounters with visual objects. They are, I think, cold and often cruel dissections of visual objects. A listing of iconographic symbols, a semiotic account of a pictures signs, a formalist inventory of a paintings shapes and colors, share the same deliberate, systematic, disciplined looking that I have just sampled in respect to the lingchi images. Formal, semiotic, and iconographic approaches may be cold-blooded and even cruel. They create a sense that an image has been mastered by taking one element at a time, excising it from its context, and proceeding to the next, until all the elements of the visual object have been distinguished from one another. The elements, signs, or symbols of the image have then been controlled, and the image is made available for further study. For me, this was one of the principal interests of the conference: to look at myself looking, and to see how ordinary looking (at ordinary objects like paintings) can begin with sustained acts of cruelty, and how the clarity of a good art historical account of a painting, for example, may be enabled and sustained by a kind of deliberate, cold, repressive, dissective visual analysis an analysis that gives the essential illusion of control. The ordinary, pedagogically instilled, rote and routine visual analysis of an image creates pain in the image. It reveals and articulates the viewers desire to understand as a painful desire. And that, in turn, permits the art historical or critical analysis to go forward and create its own pleasure. There is a dialectic of painful interpretation and interpretive pleasure in art history, theory, and criticism, and its opening move is the immobilization and dissection of the visual image. The pain and pleasure feed on one another: formal or iconographic analysis feed the viewers desire by increasing whatever pleasure can be found in the pain of an image: or to put it

14

rigorously, in a formula, analysis produces the pain of interpretation as the pleasure of the picture. For me, this third purpose is the most intriguing and potentially the most far-reaching. I am still thinking about it, trying to decide how widely it might be applicable. To the extent that the lingchi may provide a model of art historical looking in general, it may be a deep critique of the institutional protocols of the discipline of art history: its coldness, its penchant for controlling the visual, its covert interest in producing pain.

Notes
1

The Very Theory of Transgression: Bataille, lingchi, and Surrealism, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5 no. 2 (2004): 5-19; revised version The Most Intolerable Photographs Ever Taken, in The Ethics and Aesthetics of Torture: Its Comparative History in China, Islam, and Europe, edited by Timothy Brook and Jrme Bourgon (London: Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming). The most extensive publication on the lingchi is Death by A Thousand Cuts, edited by Timothy Brook, Jrme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
2

Nothing I have to say here is meant either to supplant or amend that material, and I ask every reader interested in the lingchi to look at the book I cite in note 1, and at least some of the many sources it cites in turn. I also need to say at the beginning that the images I reproduce here were all collected by the French research group, called Turandot, of which I was a satellite member. I owe to them, and especially Jrme Bourgon and my co-editor Maria Pia Di Bella, what knowledge of the images that I have.
3 4

The most succinct summary is the Wikipedia entry Slow slicing, accessed January 16, 2012.

In making this analysis, I have been helped by a plastic surgeon and fine art photographer, David Teplica.
5 6

What Photography Is (New York: Routledge, 2011).

That purpose is consonant with what the Turandot research group found is the legal intention of the lingchi: the demonstration, to the victim, his family, and the public, that the victims body would be ruined, making it impossible for him to carry on his familys line in the afterlife.

15

I expect that other members of the Turandot Group will take issue with what I have proposed here; the plastic surgeon I consulted says that it is possible the photographs show something other than excision of the humerus and femur. It does seem clear that the dissections of the upper arms and legs were intended to cripple the victim, to demonstrate his incipient dismemberment, while also limiting blood loss. The lens-shaped area cleaned over the left side of the chest does seem intended to demonstrate the beating of the victims heart, although it is also possible that with the intercostal muscles cleared away, the victims breathing would have been that much more obvious.
8 9

Stephen Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion, 2007). See chapter 11.

16